Hugh Lafoux managed to survive the Civil War, but came out of it scarred for life and with an intricately crafted metal leg. Since the war ended, he’s wandered aimlessly, looking for the next card game and easy sex. He boards the Bayou Belle in Saint Louis, expecting a nice easy ride down to Memphis. But he runs afoul of Big Al Shank, the owner of the Belle, and ends up beaten and thrown overboard into the dark river.
Former slave Cotton Freeman spends most of his time hunting alligators along the Mississippi River near Memphis, Tennessee. While looking for larger gators north of town one night, Cotton unexpectedly fishes a man out of the water. As Cotton nurses Hugh back to health, they realize a mutual attraction, and their love grows. But when Big Al Shank returns to destroy them, love might not be enough to win the battle.